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Friday Quiz

Name a government program or effort that has not worked well – particularly a huge one.

Can you do it? If not, is it because you aren’t thinking hard enough, or is it because you can’t fathom that something done by government is a failure? Surely it can’t be the case that EVERY program has been a good one, is it?

I would venture to argue that almost everyone could argue and demonstrate private programs and businesses that have been abject failures, regardless of political disposition. Why is the same not true of government? After all, the existence of failure is part of our humanity, it is insane to demand and expect that all programs work all of the time and for all people.

The real distinction ought NOT be whether some entity has failed at something, but rather what the responses to those failures have been over time. Nor do we require that failed programs necessarily go away, but surely the failure should induce some changes in behavior and resource allocation, no? So the right way, in my view, to be arguing “pro-” or “anti-” some program probably includes SOME measure of how successful it may or may not be, but rather what happens if and when it fails. And this is the point to emphasize about private versus government programs – name for me a major government program that has disappeared after its failure?

I can think of elements but not entire programs. For example, NASA closed down its Space Shuttle program. Why? Is this just one of many examples, or an exception that sort of proves the rule.

Finally, the distinction really ought not be about governments versus the private sector … it really should be broadened to any collective institution – a look at any “private” college campus is good enough evidence that this question need not only apply to governments versus markets.

One Response to “Friday Quiz”

  1. Harry says:

    I have a tough time thinking of a government program that has worked well, even if “well” is used loosely and even if one stipulates that the promised result is or was legitimate in the first place.

    For example, the Department of Agriculture was supposed to help farmers devastated by the Depression, and there were many programs set up to stabilize prices and keep farmers from ruin. After over eighty years, farming is a worse business to get into than it was in the 1930’s, and if there is any doubt about this, get me a list of the MBA’s of the class of 2014 who rushed out to raise $4,000,000 of “seed capital” to start a farm.

    This is not to say that there have been no programs to help some farmers. There has always been cheap credit available, although that can be both a blessing and a curse. Buy a tractor and a combine; rent some land; hire a few helpers; buy fuel to run the tractor; rent the no-till planter from the ASCS, or buy that on credit too; sell futures to protect your price; buy crop insurance from the government and collect crop insurance payments from the government if it does not rain; buy a pickup to take you to your tractor and to the ASCS office and Agway, and buy a truck to haul your grain to the mill; pay insurance on your vehicles.

    And this is just elementary grain farming for someone who hasn’t any land who would rather drive a tractor, instead of a tractor trailer. Throw in 30 steers, a chicken coop, and assorted other animals and all of a sudden your operation expands beyond the growing season to 365 days a year.

    Were the cheap credit, the price supports, the Extension Service people, the subsidies, et cetera not available, no doubt there would be fewer farmers like this farming less acreage, milking fewer cows, hatching fewer chickens, and feeding fewer steers, and, all other things being equal, that should lead to higher consumer prices, to the benefit of farmers. But wait, wasn’t that the intent of these farm programs in the first place, to help farmers, especially the ones living by a shoestring?

    And then we get to the methanol program, which was supposed to make us independent of the Arabs, save the planet, and help corn farmers…

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